White House issues strategy to combat wildlife trafficking


John Wagley

Date Published

When the White House recently announced a National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, it was coupled with a second main component. The strategy laid out a set of goals to strengthen global cooperation to combat the illegal wildlife trade; a second part bolsters laws aimed at curbing the sale of ivory in the U.S. except for a very limited number of circumstances.

Some wildlife professionals in and outside of government have praised the new strategy as one of the most significant steps taken by the country to hamper the illegal trade. Still, some have said that the strategy, which the White House launched in conjunction with numerous agencies, will need to be strongly implemented and enforced to be effective.

The impetus of the strategy, part of a host of anti-trafficking efforts in recent years by the U.S. and other countries, stems not only from protecting iconic wildlife but also security. By some reports, wildlife trafficking funnels some $19 billion annually to criminals and even terrorists. The illegal wildlife trade, including ivory, which is often used to make traditional medicine and other products, is larger than the trafficking of small arms, diamonds, gold, and oil, according to a recent report from the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center.

The strategy and ban are “the highest level acknowledgement by the U.S. government on the importance of the issue,” said Will Gartshore, senior program officer, U.S. government relations program, at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). WWF, along with other non-governmental organizations, played an active role in shaping the new regulations.

In 2012 and 2013 around 60,000 elephants and 1650 rhinos were poached, according to Stimson. In one country, Kenya, the number of black rhinos has fallen from about 20,000 in the 1970s to approximately 650 today. In addition to supporting criminals and terrorists, poaching can be a destabilizing factor for countries, notes Gavin Shire, acting deputy chief of communications at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Until now, it’s sometimes been challenging for agencies to go after people selling ivory in the U.S., says Shire. Once changed, the regulations “will put the onus on the person who possesses or is trying to sell the ivory to demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that it falls under a very small number of exceptions. …It will make the cover that has been available to traffickers disappear.” Clamping down on ivory sales in the U.S. is important partly because the U.S. is a significant consumer of the products and a significant transit point for smugglers, he says.

The ivory ban forbids the import of African elephant ivory. Exports are also prohibited, except for certain circumstances such as if they are bona fide antiques. The ban also significantly restricts domestic resale of ivory.

The new strategy establishes three main priorities to combat the trade. These include strengthening domestic and global enforcement; reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife at home and abroad; and strengthening partnerships with international partners, local communities, non-governmental organizations, private industry, and others.

The emphasis on enforcing anti-trafficking laws in the U.S. and abroad is a strong component of the new strategy, says Gartshore. “If it was just a matter of doing more of what has been done in the past in regards to poaching we aren’t going to solve the problem.” In combatting trafficking, it will be important to take down entire networks, he says, from the actual poachers to those who are funding and profiting most from the killing. Though praising the strategy, he adds that it will be especially important to ensure that agencies follow through and implement it effectively.

One of the most important and effective ways to combat trafficking, he says, is to help provide local people and regions with “ownership” of the wildlife in their area, meaning that people in the area understand and appreciate the importance of protecting animals. The WWF supports numerous such efforts.

The new strategy is one of several major recent anti-wildlife trafficking efforts. In the past year, for example, both the U.S. and China each destroyed about six tons of ivory. A few years ago, an ongoing multi-agency effort, Operation Crash, was launched to stop the international trade of black market rhino horns; there have been at least 15 arrests so far.

Destroying ivory and other efforts that help educate people is a key component to any effective strategy, says Shire. Many people may see ivory for sale in the U.S. and elsewhere and not understand the effect it has on wildlife. Further, it is important to teach people that medicines from rhino tusks, for example, are essentially worthless. “Ultimately we have to stop the demand. As long as there is demand people will find a way to traffic in it.”

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